Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Opening doors to the future

Now, we all get a bit proprietary about our best students. When subject selection comes around we all have a quiet chat with our students about what they intend to do and how they think they can get there.

Then we recommend courses for them.

These courses set up their higher education opportunities. In my case I sat Maths II/III exams many years ago - the new courses equivalent being combined Maths 3A/B/C/D MAT and 3A/B/C/D MAS.

I was not a high achiever in school - ending in the 50%'s or thereabouts. Achievers in high end maths tend to go into Engineering, vet science courses and the like.. obviously not a teacher like myself.

What these courses did for me though was open doors throughout my career. I was able to enter physics, chemistry, mathematics, psychology, biology, computing and ultimately teaching courses at university using mathematics prerequisites and skip bridging courses. As a programmer I could understand technical algebra and trigonometric requirements, I was able to assist my wife complete her business degree, we were able to better manage our finances to buy our first home, as company director I could understand statistical and financial requirements, calculus gave me the ability to challenge what I thought were my limits(bad maths pun) and go beyond them.

Sure I could have scored higher in Mathematics I (2A/B/C/D or 2C/D/3A/B equivalent) and probably gained a higher TEE score but thankfully my maths teacher took a punt and put me in the higher maths classes.

My point is that as a student I wanted to be a teacher at that time (..and a company director.. and married to a ballerina.. and a millionaire.. retire by 30.. pay off my home by 25 ..and be a writer..). Without higher maths I may have been locked into teaching and not do all the other stuff. My maths opened doors and raised people's expectation of my capabilities, giving me the dozens of occupations I have been involved with and the ten enjoyable years of courses at university.

Is it right to narrow a student education to maximise TEE scores for a current occupational whim rather than stretch them as far as they can go to enable future potential and enable unthought of occupations?

I emphatically think not.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Death of the Twomey Report

The Twomey report has been a rallying cry for teachers in WA when seeking salary increases. With Lance Twomey speaking in favour of the proposed EBA3, it pretty much rings the death knell of the wage claim. Without that report, there is no direct, researched support for increases of wages in Western Australia. If the union was serious about real wage change, it would have a well researched document of its own that could not be derailed like the Twomey report.

To some extent I'm glad because teacher concern about wages has removed many education issues from the agenda such as new courses of study in year 11 & 12, inequity of current grading of students in disadvantaged areas, teacher training, the development of real and useful professional development and modernisation of curriculum.

As state school teachers we need to imagine a government education system as a safety net in metropolitan areas and a limited service to rural areas. The changes to the EBA have targeted these two areas with significant pay rises. If this trend continues, these fringe services may become well enough paid to make them attractive. University entrance would be further restricted to those that can afford private education or be in the far end of the IQ spectrum capable of gaining scholarships.

I wouldn't be surprised if an 'ABC learning' type organisation starts entering the system and managing larger state schools on a profit basis. This sounded like what was described by the opposition in their education policy.

With current social changes and the reduction in public amenities provided by government, I can't see a return to well funded high schools with teachers and students able to rival private/independent schools in the near future.

As much as I would like and endeavour to make so.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Indigenous tutoring

Today I went to after school tutoring for our indigenous students. One student needed help with deciding classes for next year. Four teachers gave their opinion and the student was happy with their selection after weighing the options.

Another two year 8 students sat doing mathematics from a year 10 textbook.

One yr 9 student was completing work in old English that even the English tutor found difficult.

Three more students were completing work on computers in the next room.

We all shared a pie or two together.

... and the nicest thing was that I was thinking of them the whole time as just great kids seeking an education.

Update: heresay says our yr 8 indigenous programme produced at least 4 A's in their recent reports.. Yay!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

School ranking in WA and the need for small classes

Low socio-economic areas have the same numbers of bright kids than high socio-economic areas but with many environmental factors affecting their grades. These students are now reliant on alternate entry paths as cross state assessment (moderation) has created geographical location bias - student IQ is no longer a consideration when assessed, kids in low socioeconomic areas are no longer scaled for their environmental inequity.

One only has to look at a disadvantaged area of Perth such as North East - Girrawheen, Balga, Warwick, Mirrabooka, Koondoola, Ballajura. These areas have gone through urban renewal which means there are now pockets of high ability students and schools with little or no TEE capability left.

In 2007/2008 Balcatta SHS (31/31 students), Balga SHS (0/0 students), Girrawheen SHS (15/18 students), Mirrabooka SHS (18/19 students) and Warwick SHS (43/38 students) all had less than 50 students sitting 4 or more TEE subjects - the general minimum for front door university entry. Each school had no more than 30% of these reaching above a TER of 66%. This means that students in these schools have at maximum 15 students that are capable of traditional university entry and of supporting each other towards this goal. If we take away the ability for these schools to offer small class sizes (as is current DET policy) we are effectively closing the front door to university for students in these areas.

I suggest that alternatives such as GATE programmes are not viable for these students as they generally lack the mobility, maturity and financial capability to travel distances to specialist schools. Nor is correspondence such as SIDE an option for students that require high levels of support to succeed due to environmental constraints (I know I couldn't do TEE calculus by email).

Data used can be found here: pages 23-27.

League Tables for all schools 2000-2009 can be found here:
The myschool website can be found here

(Updated 9 January 2009)
(Updated 14 January 2010)
(Updated 28 January 2010)
(Updated 5 January 2011)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Random acts of kindness

I'm a bit of a schmultz when it comes to feel good movies.. we watched Evan almighty (and I appreciated the CGI and maths components of constructing the ark).. but more so it reminded me of the origin of my teaching career.

We don't do it for the money.

We don't do it for ourselves.

We don't do it even for the kids.

We do it because it is the right thing to do.

Each act of kindness, rough justice, happy word, stern word, direction, misdirection, care, truth, lie has the potential to make the world a better place. Who will each of our little wonders turn into to? How will they fit in the grander plan?

I try to live by my Nana's words - the gift is in the giving. If you take pleasure in giving, your next act can cure any ill feeling. Even in the final stages of Alzheimer's, my Nana can still brighten the room with a smile.

..and needless to say teaching is also kind of fun and has its moments.

EBA3, WA teachers' pay claim and DET

Trolling through the blog log I've noticed lots of searching for details on the new EBA. I'm not an expert but the best explanation that I've found (as we are still waiting on the union and DET detailed explanations) can be found here (again by Marko Vojkovic): - sadly this forum is now closed (updated 1/8/2009)

The new proposal doesn't seem to live up to the hype in the newspapers or the video release by the union (about half way down the following hyperlink.. click on the unflattering picture of Anne Gisborne for nine minutes of monotone summary):

The net result seems to be at best a 1% increase and at worst a 2% decrease after inflation is applied with significant loss in conditions. It does not seem to be inline with Twomey recommendations. We shall await more detail.

Setting goalposts for students

Once upon a time, in a land underneath our feet, students went to school. At the end of year 10 they reached a certain standard and were given a certificate. Some left for apprenticeships others went straight into the workforce and others stayed in school seeking their yr12 certificate or university entry. Class grades were generated on class norms and students that did not meet generally accepted standards repeated the year or left school. There was pressure and release for low and high performing students. Teachers focused on doing the greatest good for the greatest number of students.

Students today are carried to year 12 by their teachers and generally no longer repeat if unable to complete content. Schools are encouraged, at all costs, to get students to yr 12 and get their graduation certificate. Graduation rates and average TEE results are released in newspapers for individual schools. Statewide grades are given without taking into account socioeconomic factors. Students are now facing the inability to chose their subjects with their cohort and be prohibited occupations due to their geographical location. Students not able to achieve good TEE results are discouraged from sitting their TEE to preserve school scores and maximise scaling for 'good' students. Today, we have a focus on benchmarks, minimal performance levels and the performance of the top 10% of students. We are now much more focused on the social justice needs of outliers in our education system.

Which is the better system and which satisfies the needs of our society at this time?

Technology in education

My main criticism of technology in the classroom is that good uses of technology are few and far between. My secondary criticism is that support for hardware (computer/printer/network/projector/smartboard) and software(installation/functionality) in schools is reasonably poor reducing the required success rate well below 100%.

Here are some of my favourite issues:

  • Smartboards where lag between writing and displaying occurs or light levels need to be too low for students to be able to write without damaging their eyes.
  • Use of preprepared powerpoint presentations that direct students down a path with little concern for what they are learning - eg. with little interactivity.
  • Research time in libraries where learning time is spent preventing student access to inappropriate websites, online games, Facebook and mySpace - especially where students are clearly unable to research online efficiently when ontask.
  • Anything with the words 'intranet' or 'extranet' that students try to use as excuses for not handing in work due to technology or internet access failure.
  • Not having direct access (as a teacher) to web proxy logs for students during class.
  • Issues with students not having funds to print.
There are some great and time effective uses of IT in a normal classroom:

  • Graphics calculators and teaching statistics/quadratics/algebra/trigonometry
  • Teaching of area and bird's eye view using sites such as
  • Report writing in Word at the end of a project/assignment using preset templates
  • Brainstorming using Powerpoint and Inspiration
  • Exploring critical paths using Gannt charts in MSProject
  • Flow charts in Visio

There are some great uses of IT in an extension class I have experienced with students specifically interested in computer game design:

  • Teaching 2D geometry/linear algebra with Java (computer game design)
  • Teaching 3D geometry with Blender (animation)
  • Exploring mathematical modelling with The Sims/Civilisation/SimCity

The thing to note about effective use of IT is that it is directed at specialised tasks with either highly motivated(extension) students or students that are given limited opportunities for distraction (such as with a graphics calculator). Punitive action needs to be restricted as removing access from students(eg. stopping internet access) will hamper progress in other classes. If something can be done faster without IT, we should not use IT purely for the fallback 'but there's higher student motivation', 'it promotes reuse of materials', 'it produces materials that can be provided to absent students'. We should simply use our whiteboards/paper handouts and not change where change has a lower net learning output.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Robust discussion and teaching

Here's a thing I've noticed - robust discussion is not the norm within a school - teachers tend to avoid the nitty gritty and take a superficial look at issues within a school - many focused on short term gain and rapid results.

Subject passion was one of things taken for granted when I was young. I don't know if these sorts of discussions are had any more to the same degree and those that have it are looked on as a little strange. School is to be left behind at 3.15.

When I was at uni (strangely) my finest example of subject passion was amongst the Psychology lecturers. Each lecturer openly discussed their viewpoint and critiqued/criticised the views of other branches of psychology - behaviourists ridiculed those focused on the cognitive, everyone thought the Freudians were nuts and so forth. It was passionate, it was open and everyone had a beer together at the end.

Teachers have to tow the DET policies publicly when speaking as DET teachers - after all we are employed and representatives of the department, especially apparent when talking to parents and the media. But... teachers are entitled to personal opinions as professionals at the coalface. It is possible to have an opinion contrary to your employer, yet still do the job as the employer wishes. A teacher can hate OBE, yet teach it in the way they are employed to do. A teacher can dislike middle school, but be trained in it and be a great middle school teacher within the school and support its ethos.

To establish new concepts effectively each new concept must be subject to frank and open discussion. Once a decision is made (by whoever has the responsibility for the success and failure of the decision), the process needs to be given the full opportunity to succeed and evaluated with an open and critical mind. Opinion on the results of a decision are bound to be divided and this depth to evaluation should be welcomed. Position on a topic should be defended but flexible in the wake of fair criticism. Successes and failures need to be identified and analysed. Where once the devil's advocate and the ability to argue both sides of an argument was welcomed, today this diversity in education perhaps is not as valued or viewed as it should be.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Teaching salary and pay claim

The pay claim in WA is not about annual percentage increase. It's about about redressing the lack of increases over a long period of time. The reasons for teachers falling behind other professions by at least $20,000 are many and varied but the ramifications have been widespread.
  1. Students no longer see teaching as a desirable profession - TEE scores are low
  2. Teacher morale is low
  3. The perception of teachers in the community is low - we are seen as those that couldn't find real work (who else would spend 4 years getting a degree (that a budgie could get entrance to and pass) - then to accept wages lower than manual labour)
  4. Student performance in schools is lower than expected (although many point the finger here at OBE) - as evidenced by state school TEE performances
  5. Extra curricular work has become the norm and expected rather than a point of difference between teachers
  6. Union has weak support and leadership
  7. DET has a teacher shortage in critical areas of schools
  8. Business has become critical of quality of student output from school and has publically supported the need for teacher pay reform
  9. Students are leaving the state school system for private school education despite having access in many cases to smaller class sizes and access to long term experienced teachers bound in place by 'tenure' type agreements

Unfortunately the community does not equate professional status with social justice or good education. Professions in WA are not valued by the community by the work that they do (and the promotion of social equity) but by the money that they earn.

If we are to change the mindset of the public, raise expectations, raise morale of teachers in the profession and improve the calibre of those entering the profession, a fixed rate increase is required (such has been done in other countries) with a publicity campaign explaining why the teacher rise is different to other rises (such as public service rises) and a good idea before inflationary increases are addressed.

When the mean salary of a teacher approaches at least the average WA salary, then we have a starting point for an improvement in the ongoing education saga.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Indigenous Education cont..

I spoke to a colleague about this issue (one of the successful teachers at the school motivating indigenous and low performing/high aptitude students) and he raised (surprise.. surprise) that the most significant factor was the contact he had with parents. It's true too, he has a joke with parents and doesn't hold back if he thinks a student is going in the wrong direction - it works for him.

His main criticism is related to parents saying one thing and doing another - the support of students had to be real as the lure of government money and money from working provided a real alternative to completing school. As a parent it is so important to do what is promised in the way of student support.

A situation today raised another pertinent factor - the need to maintain high expectations. A request to drop to an easier class via the AEIO was turned around with a reminder that assistance was available (and had been organised at the start of the year) but was not being used. The student walked away happy being able to discuss their concerns, negotiate a better situation and we maintain a student university bound. The downside is that I find these type of discussions rather time consuming, taxing and draining.

The final factor to raise today is the common avoidance of indigenous students to conflict. I had to double check with the AEIO afterwards to ensure that this wasn't one of the cases where student says yes and means no. He assured me that this was not the case and we can verify this when the student comes to the arranged tutoring.

All in all not a bad day..

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Successful Indigenous/Aboriginal Education

A worrying trend is seeing high performing indigenous students in year 9/10 fall away in year 11/12. The success of students that buck the trend seems highly dependent on the contribution of a few people in schools.

Firstly the AEIO is one link in the chain. This is the person that has had the perseverence to keep the kids coming to school. They discover and solve issues on a regular basis and to be successful are firmly entrenched in their communities.

The follow the dream programme and their coordinators do a great job in lifting students to a level where university is a potential option. I've seen students, many that have been given up on, be brought 'back online' multiple times and crawl toward some form of success in year 12.

Individual teachers are such an influence on these students lives. Many of these students feel persecuted in the classroom by students and teachers. A good teacher can redirect some of this insecurity into the student seeing the consequences of their own negative behaviour and the same teachers also investigates any ongoing social issues themselves. And when I say good teachers, I mean great teachers, as these teachers are giving life changing assistance and it's not something just anyone can do. I say that with confidence as I'm pretty useless at it, despite best of intentions on many occassions.

Student support and integration are key components. Successful students can be persecuted by their own, leading to dumbing down their ability and overacting behavioual problems. Student integration into non-indigenous social groups can help break the helplessness cycle. Great student indigenous role models especially in year 10,11,12 prove to be so important. They show that success can be achieved, it's ok to work hard and quite possibly fun/cool too!

Administration is often the missing link as they are often seen as the punitive rather than supporting source. The punitive support is essential as there are many lower performing students that require that punitive backbone to underpin their positive behaviour. The other half of the equation is the ability of administration to assist teachers, programme coordinators, students and AEIO's to promote ongoing student success.

Monday, July 21, 2008

DET Pay rise and the fine print

It seems the new pay rise has been delivered and interesting stuff is beginning to hit the fan. My criticism and scepticism of the union (and reason for not joining until now) seems to be valid.

The pay rise offered (in the scant terms described and according to heresay) is below inflation, is over three to four years, has reduced conditions and has the approval of the union. DET looks to be negotiating hard and trying to get this resolved quickly before the imminent state election.

Union information is posted here:

but here is the counter argument to union information posted by Marko Vojkovic at :

"The official base rate increases are:4.5%, 4.5%, 4% and a floating 2% at the end of the agreement. That equates to 15% over 3+ years. If you take into account it is only backdated to this pay period, it is almost over 4 years.

It is a 1.5%-2% increase on EBA 2 with extra trade offs. The 15 hours PD in your own time is there as is the flexible working hours (which strangely do not appear in the summary) These are from 8am to 6pm.

There are increases for ST2 in terms of a new level, but these must be applied for and involve extra duties so it is unfair to include them in any pay rise. It is a complete sell out. The Minister required Executive to endorse the package before showing it to members.

There was a deadline for the Executive to accept it without actually seeing the full package. Ross Greenwood, the financial analyst on the Today Show on Channel 9 stated that the cost of living has increased by 4.8% and if your wages do not increase by that amount, you are taking a pay cut. This offer asks teachers to take a significant pay cut over 4 years.

This is the complete opposite of the Twomey Report recommendations.Once again, we have been let down by our 'experienced' Senior Officers.When was this offer negotiated and by whom?

If arbitration is suspended, then we are back in negotiations. Either our Senior Officers have been negotiating in secret or they have accepted DET's first offer without presenting a counter offer.

Either way, I feel incredibly let down. Even the way it has been presented to members reminds me of those misleading government ads.

We will now see a huge VOTE YES campaign waged by our Union Senior Officers and their group of sycophantic supporters who believe that what is good for the Labor Party is good for teachers. This can not be allowed to happen yet again."

As always the devil is in the details and the fine print.

Updated here (6 October 2008).

Negative aspects of middle schooling

I've been watching the progress of middle schooling - especially as many schools are moving to this model. As per my last article about action research, here is another topic that is affected by the all change is good brigade.

Here are some negative aspects of a typical middle schooling:
a) Middle schools typically have a different timetable to senior school, limiting subject offerings across the whole school.
b) Teachers become specialised in middle school practices limiting involvement in upper school classes.
c) Student primary to secondary school adjustment and corresponding levels of personal responsibility is delayed until year 10 (eg. behavioural issues are later to develop)
d) There is an apparent reduction in rigour of courses as a disjunct is often created between primary delivery, subsequent middle school delivery and senior school expectations
e) Behavioural and pastoral care take precedence over academic performance
f) Students become isolated from upper school modelling of appropriate behaviour
g) The consequences of non-performance in middle school (as students develop at their own meandering and dithering pace) is not immediately obvious to students.
h) Heterogenous classes (non-streamed) classes are fixed with the same content taught across multiple classes, limiting opportunity for class advancement or addressing teaching moments.
i) Teachers in middle school classes can feel isolated from their subject area
j) Resources become spread throughout the school, causing repetition and higher net cost

There are counters to each of these arguments. I know this.. but I raise some of the concerns here to promote discussion of possible pitfalls.

Creativity and thinking

The idea that all work done in school ends in assessment narrows the creativity of students.

Since I was a lad in school, the amount of creative work done in class has decreased. My guess why is that getting students to do 'thinking' work is too hard to mark and crowded out of the curriculum with the need to assess specific content.

Funnily enough, where creative work was once welcomed by students (and I'm sure even primary teachers today can verify this), in high school students spurn it. They don't seem to want to put in the effort to create something and try different applications of concepts, especially when more than one way exists to complete a problem.

At the start of last term I asked students to create a two bedroom house in under 150 m2. Then I reduced it to 100 m2. There was graph paper, a little computer programme that you could create a floor layout and some leading questions on a worksheet available for those that couldn't start. I had pre-prepared another similar project with sporting fields. If I did these projects in primary I'd get all sorts of models and different ways of measuring, reports on how objects were laid out and so on.

I did have a couple of stand out results in report form. On the whole though I had way too many not finish/start saying this is too hard, this is stupid, I'm not doing it.. For that group of students I've put away the open ended task for now.

On the path to senior school where do students lose their creative will? Is the need for constant assessment reducing the opportunities and skill of students to be creative?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Freethinking, valid statistics and improper research

Citation is the bane of free thought. An article is judged as likely truth or mistruth by the amount of items in a reference list.

We unconsciously imbue our students with this ball and chain when teaching referencing and citation. The freewheeling thought required of creation and inspiration gets buried in the need for regurgitated, "critical" evidence and reference based research. This whole blog has spurred the need for recycling concepts and using other's posts to lend credence to ideas. If you're here, it's to hear what I think based on my experience and disagree or agree with it. After all my view might change 14 minutes from now with a point made by you!

The action research movement and the original OBE movement has been encouraged through the "I must be right because I can quote 15 other people that agree with me." It's complete and utter nonsense. We should not disregard tried and true methods because a group of people say it is wrong and those using them don't scream their obvious effectiveness. Nor should we disregard a notion based on anecdotal evidence even though it sounds right but we can find no evidence that anyone has documented to support it.

While we're at it I resent the need to write boring, uninspiring articles lacking emotion. We need to encourage children to write with the passion they are born with rather than bleed it out of them with needless detail and bland academic articles.

As educators and professionals we need to use proper and valid statistical methods on real samples (applied mathematics!!) to question what we know and evaluate new ideas with an open mind as experimental concepts before we implement them to a wider student community. I enjoy research and experimentation (being a research and development manager in my not too distant past) but dislike change without proper consideration (in the same way I dislike bad implementation of IT). Education too often has used our students as guinea pigs instead of treating children with the same care as say new pharmaceuticals or an algorithm in a defence contract computer program.

Introducing poorly prepared bland children to society is equal to a crime of introducing a dangerous drug to the masses or creating a flawed computer programme that controls nuclear missiles. One student can change the world. Let's create children that can conquer that world and not just document then sleep through it.

Impact of parents on student results

Yes, a teacher has a big impact. I maintain that the impact of parents on the net educational result is by far higher. Impact of social networks is fairly high too. Let me build a scenario.

Student A goes home, sits at the kitchen table whilst mum is making dinner. She gets stuck, asks mum and both sit and discover the answer together. Student completes their homework and mum checks the next day that their answer was correct.

Student B goes home, sees mum making dinner and goes into the bedroom. Student gets stuck, pops online and asks a friend.. after a bit of a chat she gets on with her homework.

Student C goes home tries to do their homework alone, gets stuck and then competes with thirty other students for 3 minutes of attention the following day at school for the teacher's help. Student falls behind students able to complete their homework.

Ok, it's simplistic and is not how it really works. It does show how a student that has help at home is advantaged over students where parents are not assisting. Parents keeping up with students in their learning is very important. Let's be serious, if a student can do it, a parent with their wealth of experience in most cases can too.

Truanting and sickness

Kids wagging school is not acceptable. I have this conversation with many kids during term especially in the upper class. If a kid truants/is sick/has unscheduled holidays then it will take at least four days of hard work for every day skipped for them to catch up.

On the day they return, much of the information taught will make no sense. The student has to find a student willing to lend them notes and copy them out. They have to complete two days worth of homework.

The consequences of missing a test day is much worse. The test still has to be sat. This is usually in the next class.. but whilst completing the test the new topic is introduced. The new topic now takes even longer for the students to get the gist of.. the cycle of failure continues.

But this isn't the end of it.. it's not just in my class that they have this problem.. it's in all their classes.

It cannot be underestimated the problems caused for students when kids are taken out of class for trivial matters. School balls, socials, trips overseas after year ten, sniffles, looking after sick siblings, sleeping in, laziness, lack of parental reprimand, fear of bullying... the list goes on and on.

To the students wishing to succeed I say to them, unless you are dead come to school.. and if you're dead you better work hard to catch up when you get back.

Failure as a path to success

I'm sorry, I don't understand how you can expect to succeed without experiencing failure. Students must fail from time to time to maintain motivation. Striving for excellence is a lifelong ambition and true excellence is something that's highly unlikely we will reach often.

I'm guilty sometimes of molly coddling my students and I have a great member of staff that says no.. make the test harder.. push them further. The test results come back and they've averaged 25%.. but they know what they needed to learn, we can review the content and give them a second go at it. They can analyse what they could have done better.. We can empower them to self evaluate and re-examine their work and study habits. They can make new connections and realise that resilience is a desirable commodity.

.. and they can feel the exultation of getting something that they thought impossible.

To me that is what learning and mathematics is all about.

Professional Development

Now, I'm all for getting better at my craft. Let's get serious though, first day back professional development ("PD") is crap. I've yet to go to a good one.

It starts with a lecture from the principal outlining the latest decrease in conditions. Thereafter comes the mutual backslapping over a programme that was successful (affecting two kids in the school - and the kids on investigation thought the programme was crap). Then we talk about a document outlining what we are thinking about doing two years after the programme instigator intends to leave (crap.. crap.. crap..).

Then we might get some rehash of a teaching strategy that has worked in some far flung school in southern Africa with very little to do with our cohort and is therefore crap. Followed by a lunch (the highlight of the day) which you have to be careful not to eat enough to stem your hunger or face the wrath of the eating police tut-tutting your greediness (I shan't make the obvious joke here).

If you manage to get through all that and not die of terminal boredom you might glean a good minute and a half of usable content. Whilst doing this we sit there thinking (and some of us are smart enough to actually be doing) about planning for next year's courses of study.

oh crap!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The effects of discipline

I was thinking and remembered my first week out of university. I had attended my new school, an independent all girls school in the outer suburbs (a far cry from my current school). The principal had made an edict that all students were to wear their boaters (straw hats). For the first four days we were to warn students that boaters were to be worn at all times. On the fifth day we were to give detentions to any student not in a boater.

Now on the fifth day I had two yard duties, one at recess and one at lunch. During those two lunches I gave out 57 detentions including one to the head girl. Needless to say I wasn't the most popular new teacher at the school. It was/is the most detentions ever given out in one day.

I thought I was really in for it with the students and I had a really bad time with one of my year 12 classes soon after.

The funny thing was, I wasn't the only teacher on duty yet the only one that gave out more than a few detentions. The majority of students receiving detentions were popular students and mostly in the upper years. They were indignant that they were getting detention. Later I was to learn that a number of different students had welcomed the "black and white" approach to the school rules and were sick of the popular clique getting away with rule breaking.

Luckily for me, for the most part, it blew over. The question remains though, if I was placed in a similar situation would I still give the 50 odd detentions?

Am I still the idealistic student teacher that blindly follows administration edicts to the letter? Probably.. but now I know to do it with a smile :-)

Role of syllabus and curriculum

The disjunct between high school and primary school in mathematics has never been greater. Middle schools are finding it increasingly difficult to bridge students to upper school requirements and I place this problem in Western Australia at the feet of Progress maps level 3.

In primary schools I did practicum at, level three was seen as the aim for year 7. In mathematics this causes all sorts of problems. Let me give you some examples and see if you can guess what level they are.

Number Outcome
negative numbers [level 6]
reading and using decimals [level 4]
using numbers into the millions [level 4]
using percentages [level 4/5]
simple operations (+-x÷) on fractions [level 5]
money calculations [level 4]

To find the answers highlight the sections between the brackets.

If your child is in level 3 then know that your child will struggle in high school until they catch up.

If you see me coming to your school in term 4, 2008 with a 50-60 page document outlining what we need for year 6/7 and a lesson by lesson schedule - please don't stick it in the bin and say we don't have a clue, especially those using first steps. Make changes, prove us wrong. Help us improve an ever worsening position. We're just trying to create a clearer picture of what is required and the pace that needs to be travelled to cater to your high calibre students.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Role of assessment

Assessment is a key part of teaching - it gives students/teachers/parents feedback on how the teacher and student is doing.

Yet, the curriculum framework changed the primary source of reporting from teacher judgement to completed assessment. This is wrong and has significantly degraded the accuracy of reporting.

To predominantly use written or oral assessment as the key indicator of performance does not adequately show progress of a student. Students can perform well in a test and not be at the level indicated (especially a week after the test). Students can perform poorly in a test and be well above the indicated mark. A test only is an indication of student understanding - a better indication is normally where a teacher believes the student is at.

After all a teacher sees a student in a range of contexts and under different levels of stress and assistance. We know that experienced teachers can gauge a student with few minutes of seeing their work, and are just as quick to change that opinion given the correct feedback from a student.

Students and the male teacher

I must be doing something wrong.. Maths teachers don't get students saying hello in shopping centres. Need to be more grumpy next term..

I had to laugh when one of my yr 11 girls in a local shopping centre walked up and struck up a conversation. After 2 mins of banter she announced very proudly that she had been going out with her boyfriend for 5 months and pointed him out. I told her she was too young for boyfriends and she should go home and play with her dolly. She gave me a look as if I was insane. What was she doing out on her own at 8.30? It was way past fat cat's bed time. I teased her about not getting the maths award and she thumped me in the arm and then was instantly worried that she had gone over the line. I assured her that it was ok but not to do it in school. I think they see me as a bit of a fuddy duddy.

It was nice that a student wanted to say hello.. maths isn't like other subject areas - we're not the cool subject. I then shooed her away and said to have a nice time at the movies.

Yet I have to thank my mother in law for her training - never be with a student alone.. if an unavoidable situation arises move to an open doorway and instruct the student to leave.. encourage students to come to extra help lessons in pairs and threes... and the things I learnt in my previous profession.. always maintain professional distance.. physically and emotionally.

This can be hard, especially with kids lacking father figures.. when a kid is in tears you want to console them and once upon a time that was a role of a teacher. Sadly, this is no more and we redirect them to counselling. And maybe this is a good thing too in this day in an age of litigous parenting and the lack of trust between parents, teachers and various parts of the community.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Presentation skills

I know I go on about this a bit but setting the correct expectation is half the battle in achieving good results. Presenting work well can really improve what a teacher thinks of a student. This stands to reason, usually a student that can produce neat and concise work is a high performing student. Teachers usually gravitate to students that produce quality work.

Today, computers do the hard work for students. It doesn't take much work to google a nice template, learn how to use it, get some colours from a colour wheel and present your findings. It takes very little more time to do this - a bit more effort to print it off in the library in colour and viola an B turns into an A (or at least probability of the teacher taking more interest in the student rises). Fair - absolutely not.. the way the world works.. absolutely.

So here's some pointers:

  • Public companies spend millions on colour schemes and reports. Go download a corporate report from a large company such as PwC, BHP, Woodside. Have a look at how they are laid out and where colour is used. Make up a template in Word that looks something like it - it'll take about an hour.
  • Use a font or at most two. Make sure it's large enough to read and not all squirly.
  • Make sure it has a cover page.
  • Bind it or staple it in the top left hand corner (angle the staple at 45°).
  • Order the information so that it is easy to mark. It should follow a logical progression.
  • Check your spelling and get someone else to read it for you.
  • Have it ready two days before it is due. The last 10% of an assignment is the hardest to get and will need you to have time to think about your answer. Planning to finish the night before is not the path to an A. Teachers are more willing to have a look at something a few days before and comment on it than on the day it's due.
  • Do a bit, have a think, do a bit more. Spread it out.
  • Work collaboratively - don't copy - but discuss your ideas with those around you. Choose your friends carefully.

Employers want you to have well developed communication skills, now is the time to develop them.

Mathematics Texts

There are many mathematics texts currently available and many undergoing change subject to new courses being introduced next year. We have had a good look at those available for year 10 and can say the following:

Mathszone3: Great support materials to create tests and quiz's. Great worked examples at the start of each chapter, Pretests are ok and most chapters need some form of supplemental activities and can be a little narrow. It covers most areas but notably absent is a detailed coverage of quadratics. It's our primary text and aimed at intermediate students. Homework books require coursework to be completed in the order of the text. Good identification of terms required for each chapter.

Maths for WA3: Generally much more comprehensive in the level of its activities than Mathszone3. Homework book more useable when changing order from text. Generally worked examples not as clear as Mathszone. Has been the preferred text of many of the advanced students as the learning curve is steeper than Mathszone3.

Mathquest3: One of the earlier texts aimed at the curriculum framework. Very bright and user friendly but has a tendency to dump the teacher in it if they are not careful and review every block of questions. On more than a few occassions I had to stop the class and teach a bit that was not obviously needed from a quick skim of the chapter and reading the examples. Homework book is ok, but would not be first preference.

Nelson Maths3: It's hard to put the finger on what is wrong with Nelson maths, but we did not use it much when delving through material for this year's course. It was used a bit in the lower school but to some degree they have now moved to MathsforWA1 and my understanding is that they use Nelson as a supplementary text.

Understanding Mathematics (2,3,4): Well written and logical in sequence with outcomes clearly marked on each page - although not up to the publishing standards of the other three texts (the colour glossy pictures and other frippery are missing). We've used Understanding Mathematics effectively when we're looking for activities for students to show understanding, especially with lower ability groups.

And a special mention to the Excel Algebra series. (I can hear the critics now)... I know the space available in the workbook isn't enough to complete working properly, it lacks depth in places and is a commercially driven product but simple algebra issues can be resolved by sending a copy of the book home and letting parents work through the book with their kids (there's worked examples for each question). Anything that empowers parents to my mind is great.

Getting the job done.

It's a sad day when a teacher realises that they cannot get done what needs to get done and feel helpless about doing anything about it. Change in a school is difficult, fraught with committees to get things done. I've watched a number of enthusiastic teachers fall in a heap knowing that once upon a time they could affect more real change within the classroom than they can now.

The strategy of any great leader is to gather great people around you. Working with great people, great achievements can be made. We are not able in today's employment climate to attract these great people in any real numbers.

Those that we have left need to be treasured and nurtured, especially those with skills that are not readily reproduced such as upper school teachers. As a newby, without their support, ideas and guidance I would be flotsam and my students would be washing around me.

These people that keep an eye on our programmes, have a quiet word to a difficult student, give us gentle encouragement and directions to travel need to be reminded occasionally of the great job they are doing both by teachers and parents when they believe courses are going right - not just when things hit the fan.

Measuring student progress in mathematics

There are key indicators to performance in mathematics. In number/algebra teachers look for certain things at certain stages - these are defined in scope and sequence documents released by DET this year in minimum benchmark form. I think though that minimum benchmarks are poor indicators of how a system is doing. So I propose a different set that parents could use to measure performance. (Note: this is not what to teach - just a general measure of progress)

year 1-4 - Students have 1-1 number correspondence. Students have a clear understanding of place value. Students recognise the relevance of operations, understand concepts such as odd/even and ascending descending and can reconstruct multiples of numbers up to 12.
year 4/5 - Student is confident in recognising and performing all operations (+-÷x) and can recite all tables up to and including 12.
year 6/7 - Student is confident with fractional quantities including estimating, adding, subtracting and multiplying a variety of fractions with a calculator but without using the "a b/c" button
year 8 - Students can perform confidently simple algebraic operations. Students understand the connection between an equation of a line and its drawn equivalent. Students can construct an equation of a line from a table of values or a graph.
year 9 - Students can manipulate linear and quadratic equations to shift them on a cartesian plane. Students can simplify confidently using index laws including negative indices and fractional indices. Students are confident at regrouping and solving simple equations.
year 10 - Students can factorise and use this knowledge to sketch and draw quadratic and linear equations. Students can plot curves, understand critical points on curves and use equations/graphs to perform optimisations, interpolate and extrapolate data.
year 11/12 - Students can use knowledge to solve complex worded problems with application in the real world including problems including statistics, calculus and numeric series.

For many parents these words make no sense - but a quick google of unknown terms can assist a parent in getting a clearer picture of what a student can do.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Leadership and teaching

There's a big focus on leadership in teaching - and the use of power in leadership is an interesting problem for any teacher especially those entering teaching. I draw here from the book Leadership an Australasian focus, a standard university text.

Legitimate power is the power granted by the lawful right to make a decision. This is the power granted by a mandate from DET - such as the mandate for the Curriculum Framework and the underlying principles of OBE. Coercive power is the power stemming from this, leading to punishment for non-compliance. These are typically the powers used by autocratic leaders.

Reward power is something in disfavour at the moment, especially extrinsic rewards. Things like the Jelly baby for the good work, the sticker and the reward event at the end of term. The more meaningful or desirable the extrinsic reward the more effective it is. At the minor end of the scale a reward can also mean being available at a more personable level or providing more intrinsic rewards such as the 'well done' or the quiet word after class. Charismatic leaders tend to use this most effectively as their major source of influence as negative reinforcers deplete their charismatic aura.

Information power or expert power is the power of having knowledge that is needed by others. It's the power most used in upper school classes. You have the information and control the flow - they need it and your ability to provide it will gear their motivation. Typically this is assigned to an administrative expert or a leader based on expert power such as a lead researcher. Expert power is undervalued today as there is no effective measure of performance of a teacher.

Prestige power is another power that can be used to influence students. Personal achievement provides students with confidence that you know what you are doing and will not lead them astray. This is the sort of power commonly used by teachers entering from another profession.

And here's the rub.. try and apply DET behaviour management strategies ("BMIS") and apply these powers. BMIS lends itself well to the administrative expert with strong autocratic administrative backing. If you lack administrative backing or struggle with administrative expertise (but instead are using charismatic leadership styles), questions arise about your skill before you effectively reach your zone of working effectively after true expert power is established. These teachers feel threatened/feel unsupported/feel like they are letting their students down/leave and we are left with an impoverished teaching pool.

Literacy and Numeracy

Now, I'm going to get myself in trouble here. I'm a little sick of work that should be done in English creeping into Mathematics and the applied subjects such as science, history and geography. If kids can't do basic operations, the Maths dept should be looked at closely. No argument here.

If kids can't capitalise, read a question, put together a coherent paragraph or write a simple report - please don't ask me to teach it in Mathematics. Two of these mentioned drive me batty - reading a question and writing reports especially when I teach that abomination subject Mathematics in Practice ("MIPS").

Don't get me wrong , I quite like teaching MIPS and its bastard brother Modelling. What I hate is the way kids struggle with the literacy components of both subjects. As a lower ability subject with a project basis, students have to be able to read the question, investigate the topic and write a report. Given that we teach the maths immediately prior to each assignment you would think it would be obvious how to do the assignment. Whooah betty.. nothing can be further from the truth.

The kids typically, if they read the question correctly can do the maths. Can they write a coherent report.. Very few.. who is responsible for teaching them how.. Maths?? Do I look like a competent English teacher with the cool shirt and students hanging off every Shakespeare bound word? Uh.. no.. I'm the guy with the shorts and sandals and socks and short sleeve shirt and ugly ties, possibly with an unkempt beard.

Science, History and Geography are hamstrung with teaching and reteaching concepts that should be covered competently in Maths and English. They have a real right to complain - they should be complementing our teaching and reinforcing topics NOT TEACHING CORE MATHS AND ENGLISH CONCEPTS! Whole child responsibility.. bah humbug.. someone must be responsible for each facet of learning - distributed responsibility is no responsibility.

Which leads me to a question raised by a few - where does responsibility lie for the teaching of core concepts. I would suggest that HODs and district supervisors are necessary as is a deputy or principal presence in the classroom from time to time. A chain of order that is responsible for maintaining standards across learning areas by subject specialists. These people can and should identify flaws, reward excellence and assist with raising standards across the board.

Why don't we have this? well.. maybe that's something we can all look into.

Why learn Mathematics?

"This is all crap, I'll never do this in real life.."

And you know what - for many students this will be absolutely true, in a way. They will never use mathematics in the way we teach it. Here's a topic, learn the content from the board, open your textbook, do some questions, perhaps complete a worksheet, do an investigation, complete a test and maybe an exam.

Yet if we dig a bit deeper we do use maths constantly in real life. We problem solve daily and mathematics gives us the tools to do it. When shopping I do ratio calculations, if banking I use percentages, when estimating I use my spatial awareness, when deciding I weigh up probabilities, when reading I evaluate statistics and the list goes on. Every skill used in mathematics puts us in a unique position not to look stupid.

Girls are especially fond of saying I'm not good at maths. That's like saying boys are not good at making dresses for dolls. Boys may be good at making dresses for dolls but are not encouraged to do so. We all need to encourage girls to know that they are good at mathematics and that trying is not optional.

Boys tend to be a little different. Generally they require instant success and will stop the minute they think they know something. Their working in general is less meticulous. In their favour, they will give things a go. We need to be mindful of this and reinforce that effort breeds success and showing working is a necessary part of learning.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Diversity in teaching

To my mind teachers do not always appreciate that diversity in teaching is not only desireable but necessary to ensure the greatest number of students succeed. Some teachers are stricter than others, some are more your pal, some are a shoulder to cry on, some are like a rock, some teach with chalk, others through experience, most with some combination not perfect for all, but for a few just what the doctor ordered.

Teachers tend to judge teachers by their own standards and how the interaction with our students causes problems in our own classes. The kid who thinks we are too strict, or the kid who plays up in our class because they have been clamped on in the class before.

This is always exascerbated by the lack of communication especially outside your own department and outside subject specialisations. Teachers tend to be masters of their own domain and the culture is reinforced by a system that attacks teachers that are struggling - in earlier years of teaching the only path to success seems to be to shut the door and figure things out for yourself.

Being a bit of a talker (thus this blog) I've never been able to adhere to a closed door strategy. With a bit of creative timetabling and support by our admin we've sought to use our teacher diversity to match students to teachers and move students between classes that are not responding well. This has used our diversity to provide a real positive influence this year on the class cohort and limited possible negative influences caused through student teacher interactions.

Play needs to be taught

The sad fact is that kids in high school have forgotten the joy of play. Have a look in a playground and actually observe what they are doing. Some are on iPods, others are sitting, very few are actually engaged in any sort of play.

I experimented in my classroom and brought in that archaic form of entertainment - the board game. My experience and success has been mixed but I have discovered a lot about my kids.

Ticket to ride (a game of networks, decision making and probability) was successful as long as I moderated the game. If I walked away students couldn't play. Carcassone (similar in mathematics outcomes) was fun but students in lower classes found sitting still for 45 minutes nearly impossible.

In another session with my top group, I seeded each group with members that knew the games and asked them to explain to the others. Within 15 minutes each group had put the game away and sat talking. They just couldn't see the point. Each wanted instant gratification and could not see how engrossing themselves in a task such as this would provide this.

Now we might say that there is a generational gap and they have better games (such as Playstations and the like) yet in hindsight most wanted to try again and were more engaged on the second attempt. My conclusion was that it wasn't that they didn't like the idea of a game but that their experience in play was very limited.

Electronic Resources in the classroom

Many questions are raised as to whether electronic gizmos are required in the classroom. As you can probably tell I'm not a big fan - and that's generally from my experience as a programmer. I have a deep disdain for misuse of information technology and for those that perpetrate it. Education by far is one of the greatest proponents of the use of IT and also the worst user of IT.

For instance have you experienced death by Powerpoint?  Have you waited twenty minutes for IT to be fixed before a presentation can begin? Have you ever thought that a whiteboard could have done that faster, better, smarter that the electronic presentation. My experience thus far has been that it is better to buy kids a set of great texts than have a projector and develop online content. It's far easier to interact with kids with a whiteboard than any combination of IT (including smart board - which thus far has limited application compared to a traditional whiteboard)

That's not to say that I don't use IT. Graphic and CAS calculators are needed by students to pass university entrance exams. Tools like Blender can teach 3D viewing and cartesian planes effectively. I've used Java to give depth to algebra courses - but typically these are all in afterschool extension classes with highly motivated students.

Students have motivation in upper school - it's called university or getting a job. The time wasted on motivating students with electronic gizmos is in many cases better spent on providing and creating an effective lesson.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Three stages of Learning

Kids often say, how come it's so easy on the board but not in the test?

I tell my kids in class that there are three stages of learning. Stage one, anything I do on the board looks like gibberish. Stage two, the student can do stuff themselves - but forgets as soon as they walk out the door at the end of the lesson. Stage three students have mastered the topic and will be able to do well in their test.

It's not in any text that I have read - but is pretty logical and there are things students can do to get through each stage.

Step one is the first hurdle and requires engaging with the lesson, asking questions, listening, working with fellow students and seeing the teacher after class when necessary. Once understanding is gained only then is application and practice of any use.

Step two is about application. Have I done enough practice to make sure I don't forget this. Typically this is where most students fall down - some students need only a little revision to remember things, others need a lot and this changes with difficulty levels. There are many pitfalls here, but the path to mastery is overlearning - doing something to the point where thinking is not needed. Do your homework too, it's a good test of whether or not you have finished this stage!

Step three is where the current topic can provide a solid basis for the next topic. It's where so few students end up with the hectic pace of our current curriculum. When a student consistently reaches this stage is when a student really starts to do well.

Update 19/9/09: I later added a mastery step 4 and renamed the model the "Duh? I get it.. I got it.. I got it real good like" model, which kids seem to relate to.

Food glorious food

Although with celebrity attention ala Jamie Oliver, food in school remains an issue. Students frequently enter classes, lollypop in mouth, sweets in bag, juiced to the limits on sugar. This impairs their ability to concentrate and inevitably ends with head on desk in a sugar low ten minutes later. Combine this with 'energy' or carbonated drinks and students are left unable to learn anything.

This unfortunately is not where it stops. Students then resent them being confiscated and the materials are returned more than likely at the end of class and the cycle begins in the next period with the next teacher.

The methods of combatting this are arriving with parents able (in some schools) to prepay lunches at the school canteen and restrict money available to students for sweets. Other schools are banning sugary foodstuffs from canteens altogether. Health classes are informing students of the impact of high sugar foods. Sadly though, the majority of sugar abuse is in the low ability students, students that are already behind and aren't paying attention anyway. These students have not eaten breakfast, nor have sat at a table with their parents for a meal in a while.

Healthy food, healthy brain, healthy learning.. easy!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The power of a parent

Parents are the single biggest influencer in a child's life. When that influence is used to describe a teacher in negative terms the consequences can be severe.

Johnny goes home and says to mum Mr so-and-so is mean and says I have to hand in my assignment tomorrow. Mum writes a note to the teacher and says Johnny must get an extension. Mummy doesn't care that Johnny has had two weeks to complete it. Johnny doesn't learn that deadlines are important.

Janie has a test today. Janie says to mum that she is sick of school and instead goes shopping with mum. Janie misses the test, misses the session when the test was being explained. Janie misses a day of school which means it will take another four days to catch up. Janie falls further behind.

Jason's behaviour in class is deteriorating. A note is sent home but Jamie says that the teacher is picking on him and describes some of the measures used to keep him in line to mum - that isn't happening to other students. Mum can't imagine her son misbehaving and instantly starts to denigrate the measures used by the teacher directly to the student, blaming the teacher for the poor performance of the student not the behaviour. The student does not analyse their behaviour and continues to disrupt the class. The class loses and Jason loses.

Parental support of teachers is a must for teachers to do their job. There is nothing wrong with questioning teacher performance and behaviour, but we must be very careful not to undermine authority or reinforce poor behaviour in students. A quiet phone call out of earshot of the student followed by a three way conference (teacher-parent-student) can prevent many detrimental situations occurring.

The blame game - why do our students lack numeracy

Of great concern is the lack of basic knowledge of students entering year 11 & 12. It can be said that with the advent of calculators that the need for basic skills has diminished - and this is probably true in courses like yr 12 Discrete mathematics where students can pass (and even do quite well) without sound algebra skills, similarly in yr 12 Modelling. Now that these courses are gone I question whether this will be possible going forward.

Yet the issue starts well before year 10. Kids without sound tables and operation skills find fractions difficult. Students without fractions skills find algebra difficult. Students without basic skills in algebra find yr10-12 a constant struggle.

Although teachers can teach the content, there is now too much content in the curriculum to purely rely on the 40-50mins four times a week - the need for parents to go over the content especially in early years cannot be understated. The thought that kids go to school to learn and when at home have interaction with TV and Playstation is fraught with danger - danger that often isn't realised until yr 10.

I would also hesitate to say that the lack of well trained numeracy experts in the primary field is an issue. This may be a holdover from the lack of male teachers in primary (and we are now in the gap before mathematics confident female teachers enter the primary sector). This transition where the majority of female primary teachers are confident in teaching mathematics and pressing students beyond level 3 mathematics in year seven should (I would hope) occur in the next five years.

If parents put in the basics to allow students to fall into reasonable learning curves in school, students are leagues ahead - as with literacy and students that have reading modelled to them at an early age.

The naked truth

It's a sad day when teachers are seen as a commodity rather than as people. I'm interested in what the community thinks the $50,000 pa or thereabouts commits teachers to. The interesting case of the teacher that posed nude comes to mind. This person faced condemnation from the media and much of the general public.

Another one that springs to mind is that couples are not allowed to live together out of wedlock in catholic schools in Perth. Teachers discovered in this position are encouraged to either get married or find alternative employment. Is this fair?

Another is the fact that teachers are told where they can work, when they can resign and what jobs they can apply for within the department. As teachers they are told they have responsibilities to help out during the teacher crisis but no responsibility is felt for the teachers in duress that need a break from the classroom or for those that are looking for career progression. I even heard thirdhand that some staff were being refused taking their long service leave. Is this fair?

It seems the community wishes teachers to be pillars of the community (and for the most part they are). Is this high moral fibre a part of the job description? If so, what are these standards that are imposed upon teachers outside their immediate teaching performance, is it fair and are they being compensated adequately for the imposition?

Teachers are people too with their own needs and it seems that this needs to be considered a little bit more by those in the know.

Students entering Teaching as a Vocation


What do you say to a student that has always wanted to be a teacher? Today many teachers say don't do it. I must admit I always say go for it. It has its ups and downs, but on the whole that "lights go on" moment each class makes it all worthwhile. In every class there is a student that is a bit of a laugh, another that is going astray, another that needs that bit of help. There is no humdrum, there is constant challenge and a sense of putting something into the community.

The only doubt in my mind is how will these kids I encourage be able to afford houses, cars and the creature comforts that makes teaching bearable in the hard times - especially in the early years where the learning curve is vertical.

You won't get rich from it, so if money is a prime motivator perhaps do what I did and make it a second profession. It took close to ten years to set it up such that teaching didn't destroy my finances and allowed me to be in a position to walk away if I hated it or found that I was just useless at it.

I've often said that teaching is a vocation as well as a profession. It would be great to see the community again see it this way. I think sometimes the public sees us as a pack of whinging bludgers with massive amounts of holidays. To this I say imagine sitting in front of an apathetic crowd of thirty people at 45 minute intervals for ten straight weeks. If you don't get your message across these people will feel the consequences for the rest of their lives. They can be hostile at times and actively seek to disrupt you at every opportunity. For the joy of this you have to go to university for four years and then be criticised by the community for any issue that arises. Make a mistake and risk court action.

In management I worked to a ratio of one manager to seven adult staff. We ask teachers to manage different blocks of 30-35 students six hours a day. Teachers use a vast array of management techniques daily and without thinking. You couldn't react fast enough any other way.

I don't know about you but I would suggest the holidays nor the pay is enough. Nor could it ever be enough. I would much rather think that teachers teach because they care for each student and the change that they can make in their lives. I would hope that the community values this and ensures a steady stream of vocationally motivated teachers enter the system.

Streaming within schools

Streaming is one of the most controvertial topics in teaching. I have heard the refrain, 'research does not support streaming' on many occassions only then to hear the benefits of ability grouping.

The social justice issue has clouded the merits of streaming for some time. Is it fair to group lower ability students and create unmanagable classrooms? I would suggest that the obvious counter to this question is that it is unfair to put students together where they can never feel true success. It is true that lower ability grouping require smaller class sizes and/or higher teacher student ratios, but these staffing requirements can be offset with larger academic class sizes without behaviour issues.

My opinion is that for too long we have overstated the social justice issue and forgotten that high performing students require the teaching time lost to managing poor behaviour of lower performing students.

Lower performing students need a different programme catering to their needs and in an environment that they can get attention not through disturbance but through academic success.

The problem with not streaming is that the main output of schools is streamed students - some streamed for university, others for TAFE and some for the workforce. The hard reality hits in year 11 where hiding in a classroom and performing at minimal levels becomes impossible and real grading occurs.

Maybe that's the topic of another blog.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Outcomes Based Education

The experience of Outcomes based education in WA has been painful. Before being condemned as a failure in 2008 it raised the ire of many parents and teachers.

The main idea of outcomes based education is that teachers should teach students to actual outcomes. The outcome is important not what is scheduled to be taught. If the student is not ready, teach them something that they are ready for. Students within a class are learning different concepts based on their individual optimal learning requirements.

In an average class of 30 it is not likely that an inexperienced teacher will achieve anything like optimal learning using an Outcomes based method as they are unable to recognise when the learning point has been achieved or what the next logical learning point is. What seems to happen is that teaching of simple concepts is overdone and students start to "loaf" and are not stretched to their utmost. An experienced teacher may manage optimal learning but it takes many years to reach this level of skill. In today's workplace with people job-hopping I would suggest that this level of skill is in short supply and is only getting shorter.

Much of the issues with OBE was hidden from parents through ineffectual and confusing student reporting in "levels" which were so far removed from the traditional ABCD or F that parents could not discern how their students were performing and the information documented for future years became vague and useless.

A great step forward was the introduction of the K-10 Syllabus this year and the return to ABCDE reporting. The document has filled some of the gap for new teachers and the reintroduction of ABCDE has given some ability back to parents to read reports. If this had been done from the beginning and training courses had more content specific outlining correct scaffolding of concepts, much of the fuss about OBE I think would have been avoided.

Oh but for hindsight!

The offer that promotes strike action.

Education in Western Australia is currently passing through a time of turmoil with an industrial dispute between the State government (department of education and training ("DET") and the local State school teachers union ("SSTUWA"). Currently the dispute is in arbitration. DET has put forward its statement of claims:

1. 15 hours of PD per year in your own time;
2. One, one hour staff meeting per week;
3. a requirement to be at school 15 minutes before school and 15 minutes after school;
4. Duties of a teacher have been expanded to include planning and preparation of courses of study activities undertaken to enrich the educational experiences of students including camps, music and drama festivals and performances;
5. A clause that says that a teacher can agree to teach hours that exceed the weekly maximum with of course an equivalent reduction in their DOTT time;
6. The vast majority of teachers will receive salary increases of 8.2% by February 2010 compared with their present salary level. Administrators will get 9.8%;
7. Those over 45 with two or more years continuous good service will be required to give five weeks notice instead of the present four to terminate their contract;
(taken from a post on - a local pro-teacher lobby group)

Considering that the above is a change in conditions for a less than CPI increase, teachers are generally unhappy with the proposed changes.

At first glance the offer made to teachers was inflammatory but is underpinned by DET that is in a precarious position. Currently there are not enough teachers to staff hard to teach locations (with many non specialists teaching specialist subjects) and the employment market is buoyant enough for teachers to decline hard to staff locations. It is questionable that any amount of money would staff these locations given housing, behavioural issues and remoteness of some of these locations. Morale in DET schools is fragile with many teachers at the point of breakdown and many contemplating leaving for other employment sectors.

There is a perception that the government does not wish to be a part of the public education sector other than as a safety net provider. University entrance subject provision (commonly known as TEE subjects) in many DET schools is becoming limited with many not providing one or more of English Literature, Geography, Specialist Maths (such as calculus), Physics, Chemistry or Economics - subjects typically available as a baseline. This has been compounded this year with a directive from DET to not offer courses in schools with less than 14 students enrolled in the course. Many courses in year 11 & 12 have needed class sizes smaller than 14 to run (successfully) - typically the more demanding courses.

The current DET behaviour management programme has become teacher oriented with the onus to resolve behavioural issues within the classroom. As academic students leave the public system for private schools and students are forced to exit private schools for behavioural reasons, behaviour in public schools has become an ongoing issue between staff, students and administration.

At least 1000 teachers this year left the sector and did not renew their teacher registration. Many of these were relief teachers that at first investigation experience difficulty in being assigned work and then are faced with the typical difficulties experienced by relief teachers.

New courses were introduced this year with no capability to delay if teachers are unable to prepare adequately for 2009. SSTUWA has banned preparation of the new courses for 2009. This was recently overturned by the state arbiter. The horse though has bolted. With the teacher shortage, low morale, behavioural issues and limited ability to find relief staff for planning it is difficult to see how many schools will adequately provide these new courses for 2009 with significant goodwill from teachers that at present does not exist.

Despite these concerns the state government made no allowance for substantial teacher pay rises in the recent 2008 budget nor seemingly wishes to bridge this gap in goodwill between teachers and their employer.